Go ahead, watch us
In the terrorism era, we don't mind the surveillance cameras
Go ahead, watch us
Dick Polman, Inquirer National Political Columnist
Roughly 64 hours have passed since the botched Times Square car bomb was discovered, and thus far partisans on the left and right have largely muzzled themselves, resisting the impulse to politicize the incident. For this, we can be thankful. Granted, this admirable restraint may well vanish by hour 65, but so far conservatives haven't reflexively blamed the bomb on Barack Obama, and liberals didn't pounce on the incident to quickly suggest that that the bomber had to be a right-wing nut a la Timothy McVeigh.
Wait, let me amend that: Timothy Soltzfus Jost, a law professor at Washington and Lee University, did suggest, on the Politico website yesterday, that the bomber was probably a right-wing nut. He was skeptical that the eventual suspect would have any foreign ties; in his words, "If, as I believe much more likely, the bomb was placed by a right-wing lunatic, it seems to me that questions need to be raised as to whether the right-wing media bears some responsibility for stoking the delusions of such people through its relentless and often unfounded attacks on the Obama administration and the federal government." (Whoa, prof. How about waiting for some actual evidence?) And, on the right, a few commentators think the car bomb is proof that the Obama team should shelve its idea of prosecuting 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Manhattan.
In general, however, we appear to have a rough consensus. The Time Square citizens were vigilant, the cops and the feds have been doing their jobs, the Pakistani-American suspect was caught because the system worked, Obama was reportedly briefed six times yesterday alone...we all seem to be on the same team, for however long this moment lasts.
But on one issue in particular, this rough consensus likely will remain. I'm referring to the surveillance cameras, and the general acceptance of their ubiquity.
There once was a time when many Americans were horrified at the notion that public cameras might track their every move. Civil libertarians, in particular, argued that we didn't give up our right to privacy merely by leaving the house. Eight years ago, when Washington, D.C. was proposing to set up public surveillance cameras, the ACLU warned that the information gleaned from such devices "could be mishandled and used to blackmail, intimidate, or bully people who are exercising their freedom of speech, freedom to peaceful assembly, or just going about their daily lives." More generally, "when citizens are being watched by the authorities - or aware they might be watched at any time - they are more self-conscious and less free-wheeling."
Yet, in the aftermath of the car bomb incident, I have yet to hear anyone decry the presence of the 82 surveillance cameras in midtown Manhattan, all of them positioned from 34 Street to 51st Street between Sixth and Eighth Avenues. Quite the contrary, we've all been hoping that the cameras would yield some evidence. And even though it now appears that the balding white guy seen changing his shirt was probably just a balding white guy changing his short, I have yet to hear anyone contend that the cameras subjected him to unfair scrutiny.
Liberals were often vocal in the past about these public snooping devices; now we have Chuck Schumer, the New York Democratic senator, telling MSNBC that the city should establish a stronger midtown security "ring," with the help of many additional cameras - and this morning the New York Times editorial page seconded the idea.
Clearly, in this age of terrorism, we have come to accept this curb on our privacy rights. I'm not saying this is good or bad, I'm just noting a profound shift in the way we live. We expect to be watched, to the point where we don't even think about it anymore. The old civil libertarian concerns are consigned to a distant era; as one surveillance expert once told me, "Huxley and Orwell are just two old writers that crop up on exams."
Besides, Americans increasingly seem to like the idea that they're being watched. Exhibitionism is in. College students post their drunken party pictures on Facebook, the guy sitting behind you in the coffee shop talks at top volume on his cell about the fight he just had with his wife...you get the idea. As Bill Maher quipped on his HBO show the other night, in his inimitable fashion, "If Americans gave a (darn) about privacy, would they be Twittering about their menstrual cycles?"
Speaking of Bill Maher, he laid an egg on Sunday morning. Embarrassingly so.
The Sunday chat shows have long been predictable and boring, in part because they keep recycling the same old guests, but lately, gratifyingly, there have been some attempts to freshen up the formula by importing some new blood. Hence the move by ABC News to put Maher, the left-leaning satirist/provocateur, at the same roundtable with traditional Beltway bloviators such as George Will.
With Maher slated for the show two days ago, I was eager to watch, if only because I knew that Will would view the interloper as little more than excrement on his well-polished shoe. Will did not disappoint. The problem, however, was that Maher virtually invited the conservative pundit's scorn by uttering the most ridiculous factual inaccuracy.
During a discussion of the BP debacle, Maher argued that America should reduce its oil dependency; after all, he declared, "Brazil got off oil in the last 30 years, and we certainly could've."
Three minutes later, Will fixed on the new guy sitting to his right: "I'd like to go back to Bill. Can you just explain to me in what sense Brazil 'got off' oil?"
Maher looked like a parochial schoolboy who'd been caught by the nuns while pleasuring himself. He said haltingly, "Oh, I believe they did. I believe in the '70s they had a program to use sugar cane ethanol, and I believe this is what fuels - their - country."
Will harrumphed, "I think they still burn a lot of oil and have a lot of it offshore!"
The conversation moved on, but Maher was clearly shaken. As they went to commercial, he said, "Can we have judges fact-check this on Brazil?...I'm sure I read that, I don't think I dreamed that."
But apparently he did. According to the CIA World Factbook, Brazil in 2008 consumed 2.5 million barrels of oil a day - 50 percent more than it consumed as recently as 2006 - and that was the eighth highest in the world.
Memo to Maher: If you want to speak for the left on the morning when official Washington watches TV, keep in mind that you're not riffing to your audience on HBO.